I am slowly going deaf. There is a tell-tale ringing in my ears and a new-found tendency to shout; definite symptoms of graduating from tourist to local. Most foreigners only last a few days here and leave with nerves rubbed raw by the never-ending noise. I have been in Cairo long enough to develop hearing loss. This city is adopting me.
My taxi has ground to a halt amid downtown’s traffic grid-lock. Looming above this pandemonium are the architectural relics of a bygone, quieter era. Khedive Ismail’s ornate baroque facades now slouch under the weight of years of grime. My taxi driver lets out his frustration in the only way he knows how. He makes noise. Two million cars fight for space on Cairo’s woefully inadequate roads every day and all of their drivers have their hand firmly placed on their car’s horn. The city’s relentless soundtrack is a cacophonous symphony of bass honks and baritone beeps that ring out from the overcrowded streets.
Up in front of us a panic-stricken police officer, cheeks flushed from blowing a piercing whistle, attempts to be heard above the racket. It is a hopeless task. Ambient noise levels in Cairo were recently revealed to average 85 decibels; comparable to standing 15 metres away from a freight train, and the same level that causes hearing loss with extended exposure. We are all sinking into deafness in this city. My driver turns up the volume of a scratchy Om Kalthoum tape to drown out the drone.
“Masnoon,” he mutters under his breath.
“Kuula masnoon,” I agree.
Yes it is totally crazy – a perfect summation of this traffic Babel.
Outside an avalanche of rubbish slowly bakes in the sun. With the window wound down the cab reeks of the city’s petrol-tinged perfume. A group of shopkeepers are laying down make-shift mats of cardboard on the street corner. They stand quietly reverent, while the traffic howls beside them. It is nearing time to pray.
The mosque’s microphone clicks on with a hiss of static and a muffled cough before the muezzin begins the song of faith. The first notes reverberate in the air and in the distance another muezzin joins in, and then another, and another. Soon a hundred voices seem to be duelling above the streets of the city; blending together into a distorted roar that drowns out the clamour of the cars below.
Even in prayer Cairo is deafening.
As the call to prayer reaches its dizzying crescendo I realise that the unrelenting din of this brash city no longer jangles my nerves. Cairo broadcasts its frustrations, anger and even its faith at top volume, and I am slowly learning to survive amid the surrounding uproar.
Traffic is still grid-locked, and my driver slams his hand onto the steering wheel in frustration.
“You need a louder horn,” I say.
“Aywa,” he nods in agreement. Yes.
I sit back in my seat and smile. I have begun to belong.
This post was first published as part of the World Nomad’s travel writing competition in 2009 and a much shorter version also appeared in the UK Independent as part of their ‘On The Road’ Footprint Guidebook author blog.